Why I Love and Hate My Spanish MOOC

Why I Love and Hate My Spanish MOOC

Photo: simplerich

The first steps of innovation are always messy. Think of the cellphone. If you are my age you probably remember the first brick phones: large and heavy as bricks and expensive as gold bars. Fast-forward a couple of decades and you find a mini version of those bricks in every pocket. Who would have thought? Now they can decide political campaigns and organize grass roots movements. And most of us only occasionally use them to make phone calls.

We need to get over the hype that this first wave of MOOCs is generating and also refrain from making apocalyptic predictions about the impact of MOOCs on higher education. (See MOOCs Revolution Hits the Universities?)

Until we work out the kinks and clunkiness of the first MOOCs, we should all pause and ponder how MOOCs can help the education enterprise. (See The Wall Street Journal Feb. 4, 2013 article, Crash Sinks Course on Online Teaching.)

I’m in my fourth week of teaching a Spanish MOOC for the first time. Here are some insights I’ve gleaned from my experience so far:

  1. The number of students currently enrolled in my course is approximately equivalent to the total number I have taught in the previous 10 years. And they come from every corner of the world. Never in my wildest dreams could I have expected to have such a large and diverse audience in this course. This is good.
  2. Since all the material is delivered online, the ability to use course analytics will allow me to see how students interact with the course — how they learn. Although I can also do that in a traditional course, the size and format of a MOOC makes the process a lot more accurate and efficient. This is very good.
  3. Students who participate in MOOCs are not students in the institutional sense of the word. They don’t have the motivation of a grade or a degree, or the sense of urgency that comes from having paid for a course. They come in at any point, use what they want and ignore what they don’t. This makes it very difficult to design and run a course (particularly a language course). We are used to dealing with teaching that results in learning and certification; a MOOC is a form of teaching that only results in learning (at least for now). This is a challenge.

I plan to come back to Open up regularly to give you all updates on how things are proceeding. In the meantime, it would be useful to think about the role of MOOCs and the intersection between teaching and certification.

Here’s an insightful blog post on the topic by Cathy Davidson (Hastac.org): What Can MOOCs Teach Us About Learning?

Fernando RubioFernando Rubio is Co-director of the University of Utah’s Second Language Teaching and Research Center (L2TReC) and Associate Professor of Spanish Linguistics.  His research focuses on the acquisition of Spanish as a second language and on the intersection of language learning and technology.


  1. Thanks, Fernando, for leading this important discussion on MOOCs.

    I have a basic question about the students in your course. You mention that your MOOC students differ from typical college students because they aren’t motivated by grades. So, does that mean that they don’t get college credit? Does your course combine regular students who get credit along with “outsiders” who might receive a certificate but no college credit? If so, how do these groups interact? Does the heterogeneity lead to better discussion or just chaos?

    • Nobody gets credit or certificates in my MOOC. The only difference among the students is in their level of intrinsic motivation. I would be interested to hear from anyone who has experience with MOOCs that assign credits or certificates of completion. As you know, one of the big issues under discussion is how to “monetize” MOOCs (just hearing the verb “monetize” makes me cringe), and assigning some kind of tangible outcome seems to be the main option being considered.

  2. Thank you, Fernando, for keeping us posted on your interesting experiment.
    Could you tell us a little more about how you get students to practise their productive skills? If they have to write, who corrects what they write? And how do they practise their oral skills? Do they use Skype to talk to other students? Do they record themselves? Is there a process of self- as well as peer-assessment?

    • There is minimal writing. There is, however, a lot of practice speaking. We use audacity. Students have some practice activities in which they have to self-assess, some that are peer reviewed and some in which I (with a couple of assistants) actually listen to them and provide feedback.

      • So there is no oral interaction between the students? Do they use Skype to talk to each other?

        • There is no oral interction, at least not as part of the course design. It is a pronunciation course, so the focus is not on communicative skills. The students do interact through the discussion board, but the interactions are in English.

  3. I want to echo Carl and Ana’s appreciation for your post; I think we are all looking forward to hearing more about your experience in the coming weeks/months. Given that MOOCs allow for a more community-like/collective learning experience, I am curious to know your thoughts at this point regarding your role (i.e., the instructor) in this language learning experience. Specifically, are you more or less rigorous about what you choose to post/provide students regarding materials, assignments, feedback, etc., in a MOOC environment (vs. a traditional or even a blended course context) given that some of the students are simply there to ‘consume’ vs. participate in the collective construction of knowledge? On a different note, do you think you could pull this off next time around without the help of assistants?

    • Good questions, Jthoms. This MOOC is a version of a course I have taught for years and it less rigorous than the regular course. In part because the only prerequisite for this course is a minimum level of Spanish proficiency and the truth is that there is no way to enforce it. I don’t know how much Spanish a lot of my students know but my guess is that many of them are beginners who are curious about it. In my regular course, I only have advanced students.
      If I didn’t have any other courses to teach, I could probably pull it off by myself without assistants and with a low cap (around 500) next time. Will universities be willing to free up professors to do that? Someone posted a response to Friedman’s NYT column the other day saying that professors who spend time teaching free MOOCs are not dedicating their time and attention to on-campus “paying” students…

  4. Here is an update about awarding credit for MOOCs a reported today by EdSurge (www.edsurge.com), a weekly newsletter for educators interesting in technology :

    “Coursera says the American Council on Education (ACE) has agreed to award credit equivalency for five Coursera courses, which means that taking those classes could count toward earning a degree. ACE CREDIT is recognized at some 2,000 schools. Spotting a trend here? Last month, Udacity said it is working on credit-worthy courses with San Jose State. A couple of schools (U of Washington and U of Helsinki) have unilaterally said they’re exploring offering credit for Coursera courses, too–recent technical glitches notwithstanding.’

    And here is a recent Gigaom.com article on MOOCs for college credit:


    • Thanks, Carl. This seems to be what everyone is exploring now. In a way it’s the “freemium” model that we are all familiar with when we get the free Angry Birds app with limited features and have to pay extra to get the full version. In the case of a MOOC, you get the basics for free but, if you want credit, you have to pay a small fee and go through some additional identity authentication steps.
      The model works in the business world. Will it work in education?

      • But isn’t that what everybody is trying to figure out these days–a sustainable model for education? Educators as entrepreneurs.

        • The question is whether we measure sustainability from a purely financial point of view, or there are other considerations.
          In a letter to the NYT editor in response to Tom Friedman’s column on MOOCs, MLA president Marianne Hirsch wrote (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/29/opinion/online-courses-possibilities-and-pitfalls.html?_r=0):
          “If we want a better-educated global citizenry, should we not foster a multitude of professors with different views who can share deep critical thinking in a community of learners such as only the embodied experience of the classroom can yield?” Notice the emphasis on the (face-to-face) classroom experience.
          Does the financial sustainability of the MOOC model come at the expense of intellectual rigor? I don’t think so, but that still seems to be a prevailing assumption.

  5. I can imagine that soon, responding to the comments you receive on your blog will take as much time as the course itself! I really look forward to reading about your experiences, as language courses are something I am very curious about seeing how MOOCs might apply to. Given that your course is open and students can drop in/out, is there a way for us to look at the set-up? I don’t want to burden you with lengthy explanations but would love to look at syllabus, activities and whatnot, if you are “open” (ja, ja) to that. If not, I understand. Many thanks!

  6. My motivation is through my own gamification: I collect open badges and certificate that I display on a MOOC aggregator. It doesn’t mean I don’t have a learning plan, it’s a kind of motivation I’ve found for myself. Since I use it and try to collect more certificates and with better marks that some other profile, my studying pace is faster. I’ve made good progress in English and Spanish too, learning a subject in a foreign language that is not the language itself, is very challenging: I learn two things at once!

    • I read your post and I see a very clear learning plan. Your plan is to get better, and competition is what motivates you. I’m that way too. Whether it is by competing against yourself or by trying to outsmart others, you push yourself to get better. That is the best learning plan; I wish all my students felt that need.
      Why do you think that online learning fuels that competitiveness in you? Does face-to-face learning feel the same way?

If you are a first-time commenter, your comment will be held for moderation.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.